discipleship

A number of years ago, Wilkesboro Baptist restated our church’s mission. We affirmed publicly that our mission is to lead our neighbors and the nations to follow Jesus. This mission statement is essentially Jesus’ commission to his followers in Matthew 28. In affirming this mission, we articulated four specific mission steps for accomplishing this mission: worship, learn, serve, replicate. I’ve written on this subject here on my blogpost on multiple occasions and written a book entitled Commissioned as an explanation for how we as a church will lead our neighbors and the nations to follow Jesus.

Our four mission steps direct our programming and activity decisions and describe a process for helping members to live on mission.

  • To worship means that we gather to celebrate and declare the glory of God and his gospel through song, sermon, and ordinances.
  • To learn means that we join with other believers in Sunday school classes, discipleship groups, and doctrinal studies to deepen our faith in doctrine and devotion.
  • To serve means that each member at WBC is gifted and designed to serve in our church, community, and the world in worshiping God and spreading the gospel.
  • To replicate means that we are to replicate the life of Christ in other believers by inviting them to worship, learn, serve, and follow Christ.

Worshiping, learning, and serving are typical steps or programs in the life of nearly any church. But the church does not merely exist to be active in programs, the church exists to make disciples: to lead our neighbors and the nations to follow Jesus. To replicate is to make disciples. Making disciples is the imperative command from Jesus to his followers in Matthew 28:18-20.

Our church can worship, learn, and serve without fulfilling our mission. In order to fulfill our mission, we must replicate the life of Jesus to others. In our context replicating takes place when we invite others into a faith relationship with Jesus Christ. Here’s an example from our worship step. Just recently one of our high school seniors invited her boyfriend to worship with her at church. He began attending and was convicted about his need for Jesus. We met and talked about his need for salvation, and he committed his life to become a follower of Jesus. That is replicating. Someone was invited to worship with us, and upon hearing the gospel, he became a follower of Jesus.

Here’s an example from our learning step. We recently had a faithful Sunday school class birth (replicate) a new class at church. That new class is already full. In that class are multiple discipleship groups that recently birthed new discipleship groups. When a class births or a discipleship group births, we are replicating opportunities where members can learn to follow Jesus.

Here’s an example from our serving step. Nearly all of our adult Sunday school classes have a co-teacher model. We do this for practical reasons. It is healthier for a class not to have a teacher expected to prepare and teach every week of the year. Co-teaching creates rest for the primary teacher. Also, co-teaching adopts a model where teachers are being replicated within Sunday school classes readying the classes to birth. When we serve together we are helping others to follow Jesus.

These steps have been instrumental in the health and mission at Wilkesboro Baptist. But these steps have left me with a serious question:

If it is healthy for our servants and leaders to replicate in their groups and teams, then how do I as the Senior Pastor model replicating in my calling and ministry?

As a follower of Jesus, I seek to accomplish each of these steps in my Christian walk by inviting others to worship, helping them to learn, and equipping them to serve. But how do I replicate as a pastor?

I believe that having a plurality of elders is the God-ordained means for me to replicate the life of Jesus into others by developing them as pastors and elders. With a plurality of elders, I will have the opportunity to invest in staff and lay elders with the goal of replicating the life of Christ in those who will lead our church. In essence, affirming a plurality of elders at Wilkesboro Baptist Church is the next step in our church’s acceptance of our mission: leading our neighbors and the nations to follow Jesus.

As I’ve thought about this, what better way to fulfill our church’s mission than to raise up lay and staff elders within our congregation whose very calling is to lead others to follow Jesus by shepherding them?

Last summer, our staff led a pastor’s forum that included our summer intern and some young men called to pastor. Those forum conversations were encouraging and insightful for all involved. These kinds of forums and leadership conversations are things we can continue for staff and lay elders as well as pastoral interns and other potential elder candidates.

Here are some examples of what replicating leadership could look like:

  • Staff and lay elders (hereafter, just elders) will gather regularly for prayer and spiritual development.
  • Elders will work through leadership decisions together.
  • Elders will be empowered to shepherd the congregation and to make ministry decisions.
  • Ministers, pastors, elders, interns, and potential elders will be invited to read and discuss books on pastoring, theology, leadership, mission, and culture.
  • Elders will be empowered to oversee ministry at Wilkesboro Baptist Church and to invest in the next generation of servants and leaders.
  • Potential elders can be identified, prayed for, and invited to consider serving in leadership positions in the life of the church.
  • Potential elders, pastoral interns, and young ministers may never become staff members at Wilkesboro Baptist, but they can develop a ministry philosophy as well theological fidelity by participating in leadership development at a healthy church.

Here’ s a final anecdote. One of the greatest privileges of my ministry life was serving for fifteen years at Mud Creek Baptist Church. I learned a great deal about ministry, theology, pastoral care, and leadership. While leadership development (replicating) may not have been the intention of my staff ministry position, it was certainly the result. And what I experienced was not unique to me. There are a number of Baptist churches being served by former staff members at Mud Creek. We have been able to take what we learned there and apply to our current ministry situations. Wilkesboro Baptist Church is not a perfect church, but it is a healthy church. Developing a church polity with a plurality of elders is a pathway to developing leaders. Developing leaders may serve WBC, but they may also leave WBC to fulfill a calling to mission and leadership outside of WBC. One obvious example is our former Minister of Communications, Gary Buffaloe. Gary served at WBC for more than 3 years. At the beginning of 2022, Gary left our church staff to plant a new church in Boomer, NC at Camp Harrison. Gary and his team at Warrior Creek Church are fulfilling the mission of leading others to follow Jesus, and WBC got to play a part in kingdom advancement.

A plurality of elders is a vision for replicating leaders for our church as well as for the mission of spreading the gospel to and through other churches and ministries. This model is biblical. Paul replicated the life of Jesus in students like Timothy, Titus, and Luke to serve the purpose of spreading the gospel to the nations.

Photo by Hudson Hintze on Unsplash

At our worship service on Sunday March 6, we baptized 5. When I baptize, I ask two questions of the new believers. One, “Do you believe Jesus Christ is the Son of God and Savior of sinners?” Two, “Will you, with our help follow Jesus as Lord for the rest of your life?”

The second question focuses on the reality that trusting in Jesus is a commitment to following Jesus as Lord. It is for this reason that our mission at Wilkesboro Baptist is to lead our neighbors and the nations to follow Jesus. We definitely want people, young and old, to trust in Jesus as Savior. But our mandated mission from Jesus is to “make disciples;” to follow Jesus as Lord.

And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Matthew 28:18-20

In light of our mission and our baptism question about following Jesus, there is a real tension in the life of many churches. What about children, teenagers, and adults who professed faith in Jesus, but no longer exhibit any spiritual fruit as a Christ-follower?

There is hardly a week that goes by that I don’t talk to a church member whose adult child or adult grandchild has strayed from the faith. I could relate to you story after story from burdened parents and grandparents for the souls and spiritual condition of their children and grandchildren. Some of you reading this are those parents and grandparents.

In an article a couple of weeks ago, I addressed the reality that Jesus invites children to follow him. The tension I’ve been wrestling with is how to make sense of children/grandchildren who fall away from or reject the faith. Based on my conversations with parents and grandparents, here are some reasons why children who grew up in church fall away from the faith. These reasons are not intended to be exhaustive, but rather representative.

  • Some fall away from the faith intellectually. Culture, worldview, media, education (public and higher) promote values and beliefs that are in contradiction to a biblical worldview. When our children and grandchildren are not grounded in the gospel and biblical doctrine, it becomes all too easy for skeptical philosophical ideas and arguments to damage a once vibrant faith. Many I’ve talked to over the years are in this category.
  • Some fall away from the faith morally. Sometimes people stop going to church and fall from the faith because of sinful behavior. A mentor once told me, “When someone distances themselves from church and family, it can often mean that he or she has unconfessed sin.” It is difficult to consistently be around God’s people and the proclaimed gospel when living in rebellion and sin.
  • Some fall away from the faith gradually. Many churches have seen a gradual departure from parishioners during COVID. If a person misses one week, it is easier to miss a second week. If a family misses church for a month, then it becomes easier not to attend the next month. This happens in one’s personal life as well. Neglecting spiritual disciplines and a relationship with Christ eventually causes a fall from the faith.

As a pastor watching these reasons play out in people’s lives, it really doesn’t appear like Satan cares one way or another how he draws people away from Christ. He’ll use intellectual doubts, moral failures, and gradual departures to damage one’s Christian faith.

Let me offer a few suggestions for how we make sense of those who have fallen away from faith and how to help restore them to Christ.

  1. Remember, a faith that is real is a faith that will persevere. I was talking to a church member several weeks ago about his assurance of salvation. He shared about a time as a young adult where he strayed from Christ, church, and faith. Yet he returned. It would do us all well to remember that if someone has a genuine faith in Christ, then Christ will not let that person go easily.
  2. Falling away from faith can be a reflection of a spiritual experience that was not genuine or saving. Some people fall away because what they experienced was not truly salvation. Bible Belt culture is rampant with examples. Walking an aisle, taking a preacher by the hand, or praying a prayer can be responses that coincide with genuine faith, but by themselves, they do not equate with salvation. There are some among us and some who have fallen away who were never really genuinely converted. This means we must be clear with the gospel that we preach and burdened for those who have fallen away.
  3. Pray for those who have fallen away. Jesus is the Good Shepherd who seeks to save the lost. He left the 99 to find the 1. Jesus cares more deeply about those who have fallen away than we could imagine. He died for them. Whether they need repentance in returning to their faith or a genuine work of salvation, Jesus cares for their souls. We should bring our burden for those who have fallen away to the Lord in regular prayer. Have others join you in prayer for them.
  4. Be a sounding board for questions and doubts. This suggestion is important for those who have developed intellectual uncertainties about Christianity. For 2,000 years Christianity has been persecuted, alienated, marginalized, questioned, and attacked. Christianity is stronger today for all of the attacks it has faced. For those who have legitimate questions about the veracity of Christianity, listen, learn, and discover the answers that will help build their faith back doctrinal brick by doctrinal brick. As a professor of theology, history, and apologetics and pastor for more than 20 years, I’m more confident than ever about the philosophical and theological soundness of Christianity. Legitimate questions and doubts can be answered with patient and intellectually rigorous apologetic and theological resources. For example see Tim Keller’s Reason for God or C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity or Nancy Pearcey’s Total Truth.
  5. Don’t preach at your loved ones. It is difficult for adult children and grandchildren to listen to their parents and grandparents, especially those who harp and nag. Those that have drifted away or fallen away do need preaching, but it may be that the preaching they need should not come from you. Invest in your children/grandchildren relationally even if they’ve drifted away from the faith. Pray for them. Encourage them. Keep the relational conversation channels open. There may come a day when the relational influence you maintain results in God using you to bring them back to faith.
  6. Deepen your own faith and help those under your influence to deepen their own faith. This might be the most meaningful suggestion in the list. You are never too old or too young to deepen your faith and understanding of Christian doctrine. Growing in doctrine and devotion serves as a framework for spiritual formation. The Christian who is growing to know God more deeply is the Christian who is increasingly less likely to fall away from faith.

At Wilkesboro Baptist Church, we’ve returned to a Wednesday night doctrinal study with the aim at helping us deepen our faith. Each Wednesday at 6:00 PM, we meet in our sanctuary for Doctrine and Devotion: Theological Reflections for Spiritual Formation. We are currently studying the doctrine of revelation (God speaking). If you are unable to join us in person, we’re recording the audio and sharing on our church podcast channel. You can listen here online. Or you can download our podcasts on your favorite podcast network.

Photo by Md Mahdi on Unsplash